In case you’ve missed it – and you’d have to be living under a rock or some kind of diesel-fuelled gas cloud to have done – the UK’s solar industry is having a fairly good time of it of late.
Abrupt subsidy cuts, other policy machinations and damaged investor confidence – the UK dropped out of EY’s country attractiveness index top 10 for the first time before re-joining it recently – might have caused turbulence, but such is solar’s resilience that the ship has been steadied with the industry rebounding.
As the sun has shone down on the country’s rooftops, so too has the media been shouting from them. Once it was confirmed that the UK had a new record moment for solar output late last month, news outlets were nearly unanimous with their coverage. The story was reported as far away as Vietnam.
Among the details expressed within reports was the surprise that solar had risen to such importance to the UK’s energy mix in such a short time frame. From cottage industry to circa 13GW of capacity in less than a decade, backed by more than 800,000 home owners and a bucket load of institutional investors. It’s been a meteoric rise.
So meteoric in fact that the industry has caught the traditional power sector by surprise.
Late last month sister publication Solar Power Portal uncovered that ground-mounted solar on the Isle of Wight – roughly 70MW worth – is facing a summer of switch-offs and rolling curtailment periods due to works being carried out by both National Grid and the local DNO, Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN).
It stands to affect numerous institutional investors who funded solar on the island as well as a major community investment project intended to benefit local initiatives.
That would’ve been bad enough, but the row threatened to escalate further last week when Wight Community Energy issued a statement firmly laying the blame at grid operators, arguing that the outages were a result of “years of under-investment” in the island’s infrastructure. The group’s chairman Colin Palmer also spoke of SSEN being “extremely difficult to engage effectively with” and provided information that didn’t quite stack up with accounts given to us by the DNO.
Chiefly, Palmer said that WCE and others had already been hit by a month of curtailment throughout April and that the threat of four months of outages throughout the summer remained. SSEN and National Grid meanwhile have insisted that they’ve worked with asset owners to reduce the impact of these necessary works.
SSEN and National Grid both state categorically their efforts to time the work as appropriately as possible to minimise disruption, but those words won’t offer much solace to those who face the daunting prospect of a summer without generating income.
If solar is to become an increasingly important generator in the UK’s mix – and all the evidence suggests that it will do – then outages like this will not be acceptable. Last month’s record saw solar provide nearly 25% of the country’s entire electricity demand for around an hour, but it’ll all go to waste if the technology’s being forced to make way for improvements.
Solar’s – and indeed other renewables’ – importance as we transition towards a decentralised, digitalised and, more importantly, decarbonised energy system is unequivocal. To prevent that transition from being delayed any further such curtailments must become a thing of the past. National Grid has made great strides in its grid flexibility and there are many great examples of DNOs getting to grips with the challenges they face, but more must be done. Perhaps some of National Grid’s £4.6 billion profit for 2016/17 might come in handy here?